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The Basics of Lathe Turning

21 Nov 2020 11:06 AM | Mary Hannaford (Administrator)

One of the driving forces behind the Roswell Firelabs Makerspace is giving individuals a chance to learn new skill sets and experiment with new methods of creation. This couldn’t be more true for our November Member Spotlight, Jim Rowland. He started turning by taking a couple of classes and them playing with the tool on his own. Just a year later, he is considered the Firelabs’s resident expert.

The concept of turning on a lathe is fairly simple; you take a piece of material, spin it quickly, and slowly shave off layers until you have it in the shape and design you want. The reality is a bit more complicated than that, so here are some tips for anyone interested in getting into lathework.

What exactly is a lathe?

A lathe is a motorized tool that mounts and spins a wide variety of materials. It rotates the piece on an axis to allow the user to shave, sand, or otherwise refine it into the desired shape. It’s commonly used for a number of project types, such as bowls, spindles, wine bottle stoppers, pens, and even rolling pins.

What sort of material is best to use with a lathe?

Lathes are extremely versatile, and so are the materials that they can be used to refine. A great place to begin is with wood. Jim suggests starting with a piece of scrap wood to play with and get to know the machine. The type doesn’t matter - lathes can handle both hard and softwoods without issue. The center of wood tends to be weak, with an outer piece without a lot of knots. You can also turn soft metals and rock such as copper or soapstone for inlays and epoxy to give your project that extra special element. We’ll be focussing more on epoxy projects in a later blog.

Where to start…

When beginning a lathe project, it helps to get your piece as close to round as possible. If you are using an epoxy project that’s been cured in a mold, no problem! A wood, metal, or stone project may be a bit more difficult to start round on, though. In that case, it’s recommended to cut it down until it has 12 sides, which will get the projects close to round. Once you start turning, you can test the roundness of the piece by laying the flat side of the chisel over it as it spins.

Okay, it’s spinning. Now what?

Lathes come with an adjustable bracket to brace the chisel against. This keeps it steady as you shave away layers. Start slowly to get a feel for both the chisel and the material you’re working with, and be sure that you have the chisel on the side of the material that is spinning down - NOT up. The Roswell Firelabs has quite a few different chisels, so experiment with which ones have what effect on the piece. 

Crossing the finish line!

Once your piece is turned, there are a few different ways to finish it. Jim recommends using a friction polish, which cures immediately due to the heat of the spinning. For wine bottle stoppers, pens, and other items that require non-turned bits to finish, he orders kits from Penn State Industries - a woodworking supply store. Building off of a kit is also a great way for someone just getting started to practice with a fun, easy project.

We’re looking forward to seeing what you all ‘turn’ out!

Have you heard? The Roswell Firelabs Makerspace is hosting classes again! To see what we have on the books, visit our class calendar. Make sure you never miss an update by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram or joining us on Slack if you are a member.


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Roswell FireLabs
1601 Holcomb Bridge Rd

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